By Tom Lisi
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
The Brashear High School graduates who organized Friday’s march down West Liberty Avenue wanted the wave of street protests against police brutality and racism to reach the whiter ZIP codes in Pittsburgh.
“A lot of the protests have been downtown and close to the East Side,” said Camille Redman, 25, who partnered with fellow Brashear grad Ashley Love to organize the demonstration. “And I know that there’s a ton of racism there. But there’s even more out in these neighborhoods.”
The idea for the march that closed US 19 and drew upwards of 1,000 people came from Love, 25, who said as a white person she felt South Hills neighborhoods and suburbs needed to hear the voices clamoring against police violence and racism.
“We need to show [whiter neighborhoods] we’re coming together, we’re not working against each other,” Love said.
Love immediately reached out to peers of color for help in putting together a plan for Friday.
“She wanted to facilitate something but she didn’t to be a white person facilitating people of colors’ pain,” Redman said.
The protest was originally planned to begin on Broadway Avenue in Beechview, but organizers moved it after hearing concerns that the march could potentially give any federal law enforcement an opportunity to harass or detain undocumented families in the area.
“We worked with the organizers to keep it out of Beechview since we know that currently there are state and federal agents here in Pittsburgh,” said Monica Ruiz, executive director at Casa San Jose. “The Latinx community is proud to stand strong with our Black brothers and sisters against racism and the murder of people of color by police.”
At a sit-in demonstration by the Liberty Tunnel, Redman called for the majority-white crowd of protestors to lobby elected officials and push for policy change in addition to protests.
Organizers also said when officials from the Pittsburgh Police Department asked if they could participate in Friday’s march, they agreed.
“We need officers to not be complacent.” Redman said after the march. “If you see something wrong it’s your job to report it. If you see somebody being discriminated against, especially by a fellow police officer, it’s your business to correct it.”
Pittsburgh Police Chief Scott Schubert and several officers walked with protestors and took a knee during the sit-in.
“As far as change within the department, yes there’s an appetite for it,” said Sgt. Tiffany Costa, who leads the PPD’s nine-month-old Community Outreach Department and walked in the march.
When asked if it’s hard for members of Pittsburgh’s police force to speak up when they see bad behavior from their colleagues, Costa said no: “It’s not hard to speak up, you open your mouth and you speak up,” she said, “I don’t think that should be an excuse.”
But critics and activists across the country are saying anew what they’ve said for years: police departments serve to protect each other more than residents.
For example, it was less than two years ago when an Allegheny County grand jury found that Pittsburgh Police Union President Robert Swartzwelder led a deliberate effort with officers to block investigations of two officer-involved shootings in Larimer and East Liberty.
Council members Theresa Kail-Smith and Anthony Coghill were on hand at the protest Friday in support of the protestors.
“Really, if I could’ve scripted it, this would’ve been the way I wanted it to be,” Coghill told The Pittsburgh Current after the march. “I’m proud of the neighborhood, and I’m proud of the way things held up.”
Both Coghill and Kail-Smith said change was needed, but offered no specifics or commitments.
“There’s a lot to look at, a lot of changes that need to be done,” Coghill said.
However, Coghill then went on to praise the city’s police force calling them, “one of the best,” saying that incidents like the one earlier this week, protesters were met with tear gas, aggressive officers and rubber bullets don’t happen “all the time, you rarely hear about that.” Days after the incident, Mayor Bill Peduto acknowledged the department’s initial claim that protestors incited violence were wrong.
However, there have been high-tension protests in the city dating back to the 1990s specifically caused by uses of excessive force on black citizens by Pittsburgh and regional police departments.
And it is certainly not the first time that local police officers have lied and tried to cover up their violence against black citizens.
“We’ve got to start trickling out to these other communities,” Redman said. “Other people have to hear us. We can’t just speak to our fellow people of color and a few white people that want to come out. We have to go to these white communities and make them listen,” even if residents don’t want to hear it.
“You can shut your door but you can still hear us through the walls,” Redman said.